At not quite 3 years old, my oldest daughter is too young for a conversation about depression. But after the suicides of two beloved celebrities in June, I’m growing impatient to talk with her about my own experience with the disorder.
Specifically, there are two things I learned in my senior year of college, which is when I finally sought treatment for the symptoms that felt like they were pushing me closer and closer to seriously harming myself. I felt drained of energy, I felt isolated and alone despite having many friends, and basic tasks and classwork began to feel like an insurmountable wall that would fall and crush me before I could ever climb over it.
I never attempted suicide but the idea, which had haunted me off and on for a couple of years, was now taking root and growing until I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was like an earworm and oddly seductive; once I let it into my head, I couldn’t get rid of it.
On the advice of a friend, I sought counseling through the campus health center and began weekly sessions with a kind, intelligent woman who kept me from sinking deeper into the pit that seemed to have opened in my mind. She also concluded that I was clinically depressed, and together we spoke to the campus doctor, who prescribed an antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication.
The anti-anxiety prescription began to work immediately, as the doctor predicted, and by that same evening, I was at least able to finish some classwork that a day earlier had made me feel like I was drowning. In a few weeks, my overall mood and energy level had improved, in a few more weeks I felt energized and frequently cheerful.
Naturally, I count myself among the lucky ones. I’ve gone 13 years without a serious relapse, and my experience clearly pales in comparison to those who spend years or decades wrestling with their depression, who end up also battling addiction, or who don’t escape the siren-call of suicide.
But if my daughter (or her forthcoming sister, due later this summer) ever faces these feelings, if she finds herself sinking into a pit in her mind like I did, I want her to remember two things, two of the most important ideas that I carry with years later, even if they sound like they contradict each other.
First, what I was feeling was depression. It wasn’t a mystery and it wasn’t supernatural. It had a name, it had a definition and it had weaknesses. There were ways to overcome it, perhaps even destroy it.
Second, there was nothing wrong with me. The condition — the illness, the disorder, whatever you want to call it — was real and needed to be addressed, but it didn’t mean anything about me. I was not crazy. I was not broken. I wasn’t cursed to be unhappy or unfulfilled for the rest of my days. I’ve still done the things that I’ve wanted to do: I’ve traveled, I’ve had a career, I’ve written, I’ve loved and been loved.
There may not be a way to inoculate against depression. Maybe my daughters will never have these feelings, maybe my experience means they’ll be predisposed to have them, maybe nothing I do will have any effect. I don’t know. But I want to make sure they’re not afraid to talk about depression. That the idea of it isn’t frightening on its own. And I hope they’ll know that if they ever start to fall into that hole, I won’t let go of them.
For further information on depression or talking with your child about it, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics, aap.org.